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Paralysed by uncertainty and indecision

The ever-changing policies on CIE’s examination decision has left both parents and students frustrated and anxious

By Yusra Salim |
PUBLISHED May 23, 2021

Covid-19 has and continues to turn the entire world upside down. As all nations experiment with varying strategies of lockdowns, social distancing and other standard operating procedures – which in turn have had a varying impact on business and home life – education has suffered immensely in times of the current pandemic.

From government to private schools, from teaching methods to examination systems - everything came to a standstill once the pandemic situation began to worsen in the country. This is the second academic year for examinations since Covid-19 but since 2020 the world has been more fearful, uncertain and most certainly, indecisive. Coronavirus keeps finding new strains to keep the virus alive and with new strains and continuing waves of the pandemic, the rules change keep changing everyday. In this respect, either school examinations have had to be cancelled by the local boards or the Cambridge International Examinations (CIE). The students were given school assessment grades in 2020 but in 2021 despite all the other countries in this region having chosen to cancel their examinations, the Government of Pakistan decided that the exams will be held in October or November this year.

The confusion among parents and students persists as a result. Last year the government was initially of the view that examinations could be held by October. Eventually, it was forced to cancel and students were given school assessment grades even though CIE had originally given schools and students the option to let the students appear in examinations or use assessment grades for their final grade.

What is the problem now?

The current situation is also very confusing and disturbing for both parents and students alike. Pakistan falls into region four of the CIE category and all other countries which fall into this region have cancelled their examinations this year. However, the Government of Pakistan is adamant on conducting their exams this year. “We were miscommunicated by the Government officials that no country can cancel their exams after April 17 while a country in our region did cancel their exams on May 7,” said Sadia Mahmood, whose daughter has appeared in the A1 paper in April 2021. According to Mahmood, her daughter appeared for her exam in the morning and that same evening, the federal education minister announced that all exams had been postponed until the October/November term this year.

While the CIE is not charging a hefty amount from the government, parents are paying hefty sums of money to have their children sit for these exams. Therefore, the decision should have taken into consideration all stakeholders – schools, students, and parents - who would be affected by it.

Mahmood also said that the decision should have be taken after taking suggestions from major school chains which have thousands of children, the government should keep in view the concerns that the schools and students have and not just keep deciding on their own. “We are CIE’s clients, not the government and we are paying Rs 70,000 to 75,000 for each child and our concerns should be heard,” she said.

To step up for the exam cancellation, many activist and celebrities have also been vocal. Lawyer and human rights activist, Jibran Nasir had also appealed to the court to take matters into their hands and call off the papers in the country but the court decided otherwise and instead gave the verdict that cancellation of exams was not their purview and had to be decided by the education departments.

What do parents want?

The view of parents on this particular case is almost the same and every other parent is of the view that examinations should be cancelled this year and students should be given school assessed grades which are a compilation of test results that the students have appeared in throughout the year and their mock results. “We are living in an uncertain time and I don’t think that conducting exams in this time is an intelligent decision. It’s like risking lives of not just our children but of others as well,” said Shaheen Khan, a mother of two children who are to appear in the exams this year.

The father of a second year A levels student shared that sending their children to examination centres in a crowd of people is a big risk and he thinks he is not ready to take that risk. “But then again if the government is inflexible in this situation, what other option do we have as we have already paid the fees,” he said.

Anila Tanveer, whose daughter and son are appearing in exams this year said, “With the new strains of the being detecting every other day, how can I send my children to such a crowded place?” She also pointed out that the students had been studying the whole year appearing for the grand test, internal exams and even mocks. “All these are enough to assess the children then risking their life and also the ones they can infect at home, doesn’t make sense,” she added.

“The full fee has already been paid in January and CIE themselves have announced that Pakistan can give schools assessed grades but I do not understand what it is that’s stopping them from deciding for the greater good,” said Mahmood adding that schools were already very stringent in terms of tests and they have kept all documented tests and exams to prove to CIE later as last year in a few cases, the evidence of tests and markings were demanded from the schools.

Mahmood who seems angry with the officials for risking the lives of her daughter, questioned the education minister as to what criteria they were following and why the exams hadn’t been cancelled if the CIE had given the relaxation themselves to opt for school grades. “Policymakers are disconnected with the education system,” she said adding that they need to sit and talk with principals and teachers, who were actually in the schools teaching them.

What does the CIE have to say?

The confusion and disturbance surrounded by the CIE exams is is monumental as parents are of the view that exams should be cancelled while CIE, after consultations, came up to the conclusion that many countries wanted to run exams in June 2021. Deputy Country Director CIE Pakistan Shahid Ashraf, while talking to The Express Tribune, said, “We engaged with Cambridge schools worldwide to understand what support they would need from CIE to run exams safely in 2021 and most schools told us they wanted to run exams in June 2021.”

Ashraf explains that in January 2021 they introduced extensive extra measures to support schools and students with taking exams in the June 2021 series. These include adjustments to aspects of assessments, and exemptions from components that are difficult to run during the pandemic. Cambridge International has also expanded the process of its special consideration to enable students to receive a grade, when for good reason they miss some exams.

Clarifying some of the confusion about the examination cancellations worldwide, he said that the majority of Cambridge students worldwide are taking exams in the June series. “In a small number of countries and regions within countries, we have switched from exams to a school-assessment approach using student work,” Ashraf said, explaining about the countries having severe second or third wave and not have ample health facilities to cope with the virus. “We will set and align standards in a fair way for exams and school assessment, which means that students taking our exams will not be systematically advantaged or disadvantaged compared to students whose grades are determined using school assessment,” he said.

The CIE is also in close contact with schools to monitor the situation around the world and how the situation in different countries is changing now and then to help students who are appearing in exams later this year. “We are monitoring the impact of the pandemic around the world and are listening to feedback from schools so that we can understand what support would be helpful to students sitting exams in October/November 2021,” said the deputy country head of CIE, adding that any supportive measures which they offer will be shared with schools and published on their website.

The Cambridge in these times consider and prioritise health conditions and safety of the people than conducting just examination. “Our priorities during this time is to keep students and school staff safe, and at the same time, help students to progress with their education in the fairest way possible,” he added.

The school assesses grades

The situation of examination was not much different than last year when after postponing till October, the exams were cancelled worldwide and students were awarded and graded through school assessments but all this created confusion as many students and parents were unhappy with the grades and blamed the system for their lower grades. Ashraf, however, brushes off these claims and says, “In June 2020, Cambridge exams were cancelled worldwide, students [everywhere] received grades predicted by their schools.”

Talking about the current situation of what relaxation would be given to students and is there any alternate to exams other than just school grades, he shared that in June 2021 the majority of Cambridge students worldwide will take exams, which they believe remains the fairest and most reliable way to assess student achievement. Where directives from national and local authorities mean exams cannot go ahead, schools have switched from exams to a school assessment approach using student work. “We have published our criteria for aligning and setting standards in the June 2021 series to make sure that students who receive school-assessed grades are not advantaged or disadvantaged compared to students whose grades are determined using exams. The June 2020 series has helped us to understand the standard of school-assessed grades, and it will be one of many factors that we use to determine grade thresholds in June 2021,” Ashraf explained.

International applicants

With the current situation and policy changing every few months as the Covid situation keep changing rapidly all over the world, many decisions were made on behalf of the changing conditions, one such decision is to hold an exam in June for students who are planning to apply in international universities. Cambridge International AS and A Level students who need their results in August to support their university applications have been allowed to sit exams in the June 2021 series in Pakistan. This is an exceptional situation caused by the need to restrict the number of students taking exams while still enabling students to progress to university. CIE has taken these measures in support of the government of Pakistan’s decision, as they are best placed to make plans for students’ future progression.

“We plan for exams to go ahead in all our future series where it is permitted and safe. This is the fairest and most accurate way of assessing candidates’ performance. However, we will continue to monitor the impact of the pandemic around the world and will take an appropriate decision as we reach closer to the exam series,” he shared.

Alternate to exams

Since the exams have been affected for the consecutive second year and the situation in the world does not seem to be getting better until next year, the same confusion between either exam will be held or not be there again, the governments and examinations boards should be coming up with any alternative where students are relieved of exams but they will get assessed through any other method but unfortunately despite a year and a half since the pandemic and education sector suffering in every nook and corner of the world nothing concrete has been done on this matter. “We believe exams remain the fairest and most reliable way to assess student achievement. We have adapted our assessment significantly in 2021 so that as many students as possible can access the exams, in the many different circumstances of the pandemic. Going forward, we will continue to make any adjustments necessary to our exams to help schools manage the impact of the pandemic,” the deputy country head said.

Sindh government on the matter

Unlike any other issue, the matter of education and examinations have been under discussion since the closure of schools was first imposed on February 27 last year when the first-ever case of coronavirus was detected in Karachi. Since then the institutes have been facing on and off closure but the decision of examinations has been another long debate among the provincial and federal governments. “Exam will be held this year whether a bit late but we will try to conduct them and not promote any class [without them],” said Sindh Minister for Education Saeed Ghani.

He also explained that the governments are sure of the examination to be held in June as the country is getting vaccinated and it can help in bringing matters back to normal. “The process of vaccination is slow obviously but still something is better than nothing and in the coming few months, the situation will get better and the departments will be in a better position to conduct exams if nothing uncertain comes up,” he said, pointing out that the Covid-19 situation can worsen within two weeks and can also get better in two weeks so taking any concrete decision is not possible.

With many amendments and new policies, the government has been constantly changing its stance. For the local examinations, the governments have shortened the syllabus, changed the paper pattern, and even lessened the exam hours but with CIE nothing can be done from the government’s end to help students here as the exams will be held according to the pattern defined by the Cambridge examination.

Student’s plight

With all of this situation of exams either happening or getting canceled last moment, the most affected are students who are in the middle of this whole dilemma. M* has been studying for the A1 for a year and it seems that she might have exams in October while her classes for A2 will commence from June 1, 2021.

The story of E* is no different either, she has been constantly under pressure to study and get good grades so that she can get into a good university. “It has been more than a year that I have been preparing for exams and it was not as if we weren’t studying the whole year. Schools were making us take several tests the whole year as they knew from their experience last year, that they might have to give school assessed grades to students.”

Following the school schedule and taking online classes, completing assignments and quizzes and even appearing for grand tests the whole year, the students still think that Covid-19 has snatched away their desire and ambitions to study and excel in academia. The uncertainty of the future combined with the fact they no longer have the discipline and routine that physical classrooms used to provide them with, has slowly led to a waning of interest in studies. “I mostly lose interest in online classes. I have to work harder and even our teachers have to put extra effort to make the lessons more interactive and engaging,” said E*.

Many students have stopped studying out of frustration as they appeared for one paper and now are waiting until October to appear for the rest of them. “It is frustrating to keep waiting to give exams. The times are unpredictable but still, this has been stretched a lot already and my focus is no more on this year’s exams but for my future as I can see my future getting affected due to all this confusion between the government and their policies,” said Osama who will be appearing for his A2 exams.